World Affairs (WA): How and in what circumstances was ASEAN established? What, in your view, were the principal economic and political factors that led the five Southeast Asian nations to join hands in 1967?

Rodolfo C Severino (RCS): ASEAN was established in 1967 by five countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore. Except for Thailand, all of these countries had just acquired political independence from centuries of colonisation and foreign domination. This common experience motivated the countries of Southeast Asia, like most newly-independent developing countries, to work together to preserve their common interest. Forming a regional organisation could fill the power vacuum left by the major powers, which used the region for proxy wars and major power rivalry. Forming a regional organisation could provide a self-help mechanism for these newly-independent countries enabling them to concentrate on nation-building and economic development. Forming a regional organisation could also provide more weight to their collective voice in the international community.

WA: Could you briefly explain the broad economic, political and social objectives that the organisation has fixed for itself?

RCS: The Bangkok Declaration, which established ASEAN in 1967, stated that the alms and purposes of the Association should be (a) to accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through Joint endeavours in the spirit of equality and partnership; (b) to promote regional peace and stability; and (c) to maintain close and beneficial cooperation with existing international and regional organisations with similar alms and purposes. The Sixth ASEAN Summit, held in Hanoi in December 1998, reaffirmed these goals and resolved to “move ASEAN onto a higher plane of regional cooperation in order to strengthen ASEAN’s effectiveness in dealing with the challenges of growing inter-dependence within ASEAN and of its integration into the global economy.”

WA: Could you please highlight what, in your view, are the major landmarks in the evolution of the organisation?

RCS: The 1971 Declaration on the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality constituted ASEAN’s first collective expression of its political goals and direction. The First ASEAN Summit in 1976 adopted the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia and the Declaration of ASEAN Concord. The TAC binds the contracting parties to certain fundamental principles in their relations with one another: (a) mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations; (b) the right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion; (c) non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; (d) settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means; (e) renunciation of threat or use of force; and (d) effective cooperation among themselves. The ASEAN Concord elaborated on this last principle by providing a framework for ASEAN cooperation in the political, principle economic, social, cultural and security aspects.

The 1992 adoption of the Framework Agreement on Enhancing ASEAN Economic Cooperation is an important milestone in achieving ASEAN economic integration. It launched the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the Common Effective Preferential Tariff Scheme as the main mechanism for AFTA.

The establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994 is a historic event for the Asia-Pacific. The ARF is the first and only Asia-Pacific forum for political and security dialogue and cooperation. It is now composed of all ASEAN member countries plus Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Russian Federation, and the United States.

The most important recent development was the formulation of the ASEAN Vision 2020 of  “ASEAN as a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies.”  In December 1998, the ASEAN leaders adopted the Hanoi Plan of Action, which contained a set of specific measures and activities to implement the Vision. These two documents were agreed upon in the middle of the most serious economic and financial crisis that had hit the region. They demonstrated the ASEAN leaders’ ability and resolve to provide long-ten-n direction for the region while addressing the immediate implications of the crisis.

The admission of Cambodia into ASEAN on April 30, 1999 marked the culmination of ASEAN’s efforts to bring all ten countries of Southeast Asia into the organisation. It is an important and major event in the history of Southeast Asia.

WA: Do you see any stipulation in the organisational framework of the organisation that has given it a supranational character?

RCS: ASEAN is an inter-governmental organisation where decisions are based on consensus of all the member countries. It is not, and was not meant to be, a supranational entity acting independently of its members. It has no regional parliament or council of ministers with law-making powers, no power of enforcement, and no judicial system. Much less is it like NATO, with armed forces at its command, or the UN Security Council, which can authorise military action by its members under one flag.

WA: What is the nature o the ASEAN Secretariat? How is the Secretary-General appointed and what is his role?

RCS: The Agreement on the Establishment of the ASEAN Secretariat states that its basic mandate is “to provide for greater efficiency in the coordination of ASEAN organs and for more effective implementation of ASEAN projects and activities.” In. 1992, the ASEAN Summit agreed to redesignate the Secretary-General of the ASEAN Secretariat into the Secretary-General of ASEAN with an enlarged mandate to initiate, advise, coordinate, and implement ASEAN activities. Since 1992, the staff of the ASEAN Secretariat has been professionalised through open and competitive recruitment.

The Secretary-General has been accorded ministerial status. He is selected by the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and appointed by the Heads of Government on the basis of merit. His tenure of office is five years. In addition to being in charge of the ASEAN Secretariat, the Secretary-General serves as the spokesman and representative of ASEAN on all matters; addresses the AMM on all aspects of regional cooperation and offers assessments and recommendations on ASEAN’s external relations; attends and advises all ASEAN meetings at the ministerial level; and chairs on behalf of the Chairman of the ASEAN Standing Committee (ASC) all meetings of the ASC except the first and last for each year.

WA: ASEAN has established a system of committees on a wide array of topics. What is their role and their input in the final decisions taken by the organisation?

RCS: ASEAN has 21 ministerial bodies, 29 committees of senior officials, and about 120 technical or working-level organs. All of them meet regularly some more frequently than others – to formulate, implement, monitor and review policies and projects. The highest decision-making organ of ASEAN is the Meeting of the ASEAN Heads of Government, which takes place every three years with informal meetings in between.

The areas of ASEAN cooperation include education, the environment, social welfare, science and technology, culture and information, youth, transnational crime, trade, investment, agriculture, transport, tourism, energy, finance, political matters and security.

WA: Have transnational non-governmental interest groups emerged in the ASEAN area that are open proponents of regional cooperation? Are they acting as pressure groups to accelerate the whole process of cooperation and integration? What is the level of their interaction with ASEAN?

RCS: The ASEAN Vision 2020 provides that ASEAN shall empower  the civil society. ASEAN has about  45 affiliated non-governmental organisations working in various fields. Among the major organisations which contribute to ASEAN policies and decisions are the ASEAN Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ASEAN-CCI), the ASEAN Business Forum, ASEAN Vegetable Oils Club, Federation of International Food Science and Technology Associations, ASEAN NGOs for the Prevention of Drug and Substance Abuse, several NGOs working on HIV/AIDS, the ASEAN University Network, ASEAN Tourism Association, the Working Group on the Establishment of a Regional Mechanism on Human Rights, and the ASEAN Institutes for Strategic and International Studies.

WA: ASEAN now includes all countries in Southeast Asia. Has this expansion in membership made the decision-making process more cumbersome?

RCS: The expansion of ASEAN does not make the organisation’s decision making processes more cumbersome. However, on certain occasions, it takes a little longer to arrive at consensus because ASEAN’s enlargement has brought about not only a larger ASEAN, but also a more diverse one. ASEAN nations are diverse not only in size, cultures, histories, religions, races, values and traditions, but also in levels of development and national priorities.

It is for good historical, cultural and political reasons, in the context of Southeast Asia’s diversity, that ASEAN has so far leaned toward informal understandings and voluntary arrangements rather than toward legally binding agreements. This is also why the building of formal ASEAN institutions has been slow and gradual. ASEAN is at a stage where forcing a majority decision on a minority could easily strain the fabric of the association.

WA: There were apparently some political difficulties regarding the inclusion of Myanmar and Cambodia. All the members were not in agreement, and the Western world was opposed to the inclusion of Myanmar into the ASEAN fold. Has all this been resolved?

 RCS: ASEAN makes decisions on membership based on its own criteria and guidelines and not on what other countries say. From the very beginning, the founders of ASEAN envisioned the inclusion of all Southeast Asian countries in the organisation. ASEAN believes in diplomatic and political engagement and not in a policy of isolation. Being part of one organisation is the best way for all Southeast Asian countries to discuss common problems and issues that have regional implications.

ASEAN adheres to the policy of non-discrimination among its members. The ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting could not take place as scheduled last March 1999, because of the EU policy of not issuing visas to high-ranking officials of Myanmar. ASEAN could not possibly agree to a meeting involving ASEAN as an association with one of its members prevented from participating fully. Any regional association would take that position.

 WA: Can you inform us concretely what progress ASEAN has made (a) in establishing the ASEAN free trade area in accordance with the 1993 agreement? (b) in setting norms of unhindered mobility of labour and capital within ASEAN? and (c) in accelerating the process of modernisation of the whole region?

RCS: The process of establishing the ASEAN Free Trade Area is on track and is being accelerated. For the six original signatories, completion of AFTA has been advanced to the beginning of 2002. By that time, the products of these countries that are subject to AFTA treatment win have tariffs of only 0-5 per cent. By the beginning of 2000, 90 per cent of such products, and at least 85 per cent for each country, will be subject to these minimal tariffs. This represents 90 per cent of all intra-ASEAN trade. Each country will strive to have most of their AFTA products tariffs-free. Thus, within a few months, AFTA will have been substantially achieved.

Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia are given a few more years similarly to drop their own tariffs on other ASEAN products. In the meantime, the AFTA process will help these countries adjust to more open economic regimes, strengthen them for competition, and give them the benefits of regional economic integration, including investments and infrastructure.

ASEAN economic integration is being promoted in various other sectors. ASEAN is undertaking technical standardisation and harmonisation of telecommunication facilities. The broadband interconnectivity and interoperability of the National Information Infrastructure hopes to lead to an effective ASEAN Information Infrastructure. The Hanoi Plan of Action includes a strategy to realise the trans-ASEAN energy networks covering the ASEAN Power Grid and Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline Projects. They are both aimed at achieving greater efficiency in scale.

 WA: Why was the ASEAN Regional Forum established in 1993? What were the factors that catalysed the members of ASEAN to establish an institution for security purposes? Were there any particular security concerns?

 RCS: The ASEAN Regional Forum was established in 1993 and held its first meeting in Bangkok on July 24, 1994. ASEAN took this major step to consolidate peace and stability in the region after the end of the Cold War. The ARF Concept Paper states. that “the main challenge of the ASEAN Regional Forum is to sustain and enhance this peace and prosperity.”

ASEAN believes that its long-term security is tied with the overall security outlook of the Asia-Pacific region. The First ARF Chairman’s Statement of July 25, 1994 recognised that “developments in one of the regions could have an impact on the security of the region as a whole.” The ARF aims to promote political and security dialogue and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, with particular emphasis on East Asia. This is being achieved through the promotion of confidence-building measures and preventive diplomacy.

Among the security concerns being discussed at the ARF are the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, nuclear testing, and disarmament. At its meetings in 1998 and 1999, the ARF exchanged views on the security implications of the regional economic and financial crisis.

WA: What is the nature of ASEAN’s relations with China and India, two of its major neighbours, situated on the northern and southern periphery of Southeast Asia?

 RCS: China and India are both Dialogue Partners of ASEAN. Within the framework of the dialogue process, political consultations are held regularly at the senior officials level with each of them. ASEAN has established a joint Cooperation Committee with each of  them to promote economic and development cooperation. ASEAN is committed to maintain its friendly and mutually beneficial relations with China and India. Both of them are significant economic partners of ASEAN.

WA: ASEAN has regular Asia-Europe Meetings (ASEM). Is this the only inter-regional interaction that has been institutionalised, or does ASEAN have such meetings with other regions or countries?

RCS: The European Union has been a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN since 1972. It is an organisation-to-organisation relationship, which is governed by the ASEAN-EC Cooperation Agreement of 1980. The Asia-Europe Meeting is a different forum, which was set u in 1995. Its members are individual countries. The membership on the Asian side is composed of seven ASEAN countries plus China, Japan and the Republic of Korea.

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers have regular consultations with their counterparts from other regional organisations, such as the Economic Cooperation organisation, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the South Pacific Forum, and the Rio Group. Most of these consultations take place in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to exchange views on issues before the UN General Assembly and other subjects of mutual interest.

 WA: Has ASEAN taken a position on the nuclearisation of South Asia? Was it discussed at the last meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum?

 RCS: In their joint Commiunique of July 1998, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers deplored the series of nuclear tests conducted in South Asia. They called on all countries which have not done so to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in recognition of the overwhelming interest to establish a nuclear-free world. The 5th ASEAN Regional Forum, which was held in Manila in July 1998, called for the total cessation of such nuclear testing and asked the countries concerned to refrain from weaponising or deploying missiles to deliver nuclear weapons.

As its contribution to the worldwide campaign for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, ASEAN adopted the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone on 15 December 1995. It came into force on 25 March 1997. Consultations are underway on the accession of the Nuclear Weapon States to the Protocol of the SEANWFZ Treaty.

 WA: What in your view are the major problems and challenges in the way of regional cooperation? In your view, what should ASEAN focus on as a major priority as we move into the next millennium?

 RCS: The Hanoi Plan of Action is ASEAN’s direct response to present and future challenges as we move into the next millennium. These measures prescribe close financial cooperation to prevent financial crises from recurring in the future. They set the course firmly toward broader and deeper regional economic integration by breaking down barriers to trade and investment and making trade and investment easier and more efficient and by tying national economies together through transportation, communications, and infrastructure linkages. The process of regional integration will ensure that new members of ASEAN participate in and benefit fully from ASEAN activities. The Hanoi Plan of Action lays down the foundations for the region’s future competitiveness by pushing the development of science and technology and the training of people for the skills required by the industries of tomorrow. It stresses the importance of making ASEAN better known to its own people and to the world beyond. Finally, the Hanoi Plan of Action not only sets the direction for ASEAN itself but also provides a comprehensive framework and guide for ASEAN’s relations with its dialogue partners and other regional organisations with the same goals and purposes.